Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster.
When I was in school in my tweens, I discovered this series of three books by Enid Blyton about 4 siblings going to live on a farm in my school library. They are called The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, The Children of Willow Farm, and More Adventures on Willow Farm. By this point, I was already deep into Blyton’s Famous Five, the Five Find-Outers and Dog, and her many boarding school books, and I was so delighted to discover hitherto uncharted Blyton territory (for me) that I borrowed all of them and read them. There were amazing slice-of-life stories that depicted life in the English countryside, with multiple vignettes into the peculiarities of English wildlife, and British farming as it was in the 1940’s. Not much stuck with me, but there are two things I still recall from those books: how butter is made, what skimmed milk is, and Tammylan, a “wild man” who acted as the children’s kindly and unconventional mentor, teaching them about rural living and their relationship to nature. The books just exude this irresistible allure of simple, wholesome living that seems so out of reach for us in modernity, so much so that we ache with longing and a vague sense of loss.
Kuroyanagi Tetsuko’s Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window is very much like those books. Instead of a farm, we were transported to Tomoe Gakuen, an almost dream-like little school with train cars as classroom, ran by an unconventionally wise educator, Mr. Kobayashi. Had I read this book as child, I would have loved and treasured it as much as I do those farm books by Enid Blyton. Unlike Blyton’s books, which are fictional, Totto-Chan is a memoir. While it can appear disjointed and purposeless in places, it is charged with the gravity of reality, lived-in experiences, and memories deeply cherished by the author who lovingly penned them down so they could be shared. It’s like reading a Ghibli film set in a world as vivid as any that Miyazaki dreams of. And I feel a little envious of Totto-Chan. Even though I had a pretty amazing childhood, what amazing about it was not my school life. In fact, I disliked school, I disliked homework, and I disliked most of my teachers (one of them loved touching young boys inappropriately); and I wonder what sort of person I might be today had I went to Tomoe Gakuen and met Mr Kobayashi instead.
This book made me want to do right by my own child, who is 5½ years old and is about the same age as Totto-Chan when she enrolled in Tomoe Gakuen. It made me realise how formative and important those early years can be, and what a child experiences in them can affect them their entire lives. I do not always listen to my child, even when he really wants to talk. While I do my best to provide a stimulating environment for him, he still lives a pretty urban existence, with few opportunities to know the world beyond human comfort and air-conditioning. His existence is a safe one, and I don’t believe he had ever been allowed to venture outside the supervision of an adult since he was born (while I was frequently roaming outside my childhood home on my own since the age of five). Parenting and pedagogy in the modern world is very sanitised, and I fear we have lost something crucial along the way. I told my wife that she should read this book too, and I hope she will, so we can have a conversation about it.
Thanks again to Diana for gifting me this lovely book (I can see why you are so obsessed with it). Your timing could not have been better. I really enjoyed it, and it had also given me a lot to think about.
P.S. I didn’t know that Iwasaki Chihiro had passed away long before this book was published. It is amazing how well her drawings fit into the book.